TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bismillah: The Making of an Islamic Quilt by Donna Hussain

After learning how to quilt I decided to make one quilted wall-hanging a year in honor of my husband’s Muslim heritage. Bismillah is a quilt in that series. My goal was to render in fabric the beauty of Islamic motifs in mosaics, calligraphy, and architecture.

Mosaic wall panels and tile floors in Islamic buildings are many of the same geometric designs that we use in quilting. I chose the eight-pointed star, a pattern frequently found in Mid-East décor, for the patchwork background of my quilt.

After drawing the pattern on graph paper I identified the basic shapes required to sew the stars: a large square, two rectangles, and a small butterfly block.

My favorite method of sewing a butterfly block is to cut down a four-square block as illustrated.

Graph paper also helped me decide that vertical rows were best for sewing the pattern together. When the patchwork for Bismillah was completed, it reminded me of mosaics I have seen in mosques.

Many Muslim artists follow the Old Testament injunction against making a graven image or the likeness of any creature. Though the Koran does not specifically forbid the representation of living things, some hadiths (sayings) attributed to Mohammed, the Prophet, do so. This helps explain why calligraphy and other forms of abstract design are favored in the Islamic world. The calligraphy is usually a saying of the Prophet, a line of poetry, or a verse from the Koran. In buildings, the writing often serves as a border to a mosaic wall panel. Or the script may be embedded within geometric patterns.

The calligraphy of my quilt is Bismillah al Rahman al Rahim (In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful), the first words of each chapter of the Koran. When I first saw this calligraphy in a book, I did not know its meaning, but was moved by the beauty of the Arabic brush strokes. Once told the meaning, I liked the calligraphy even more. I made templates of the inscription to appliqué to my quilt.

I also turned to a reference book to learn how to draw an arch for my quilt Bismillah. (In Muslim prayer rugs, the arch symbolizes the portal to heaven.) Since I did not have a compass big enough to draw a large arch, I improvised. On the non-wax surface of freezer paper I anchored a tape measure with a sharp pin, then moved the end of the tape measure in half-inch increments marking the curve of the arch with a pencil mark at the end of the tape after each move. Then I joined the pencil marks in one continuous line. Lastly, I cut the paper on the drawn line and threw away the freezer paper from the center of the arch. What remained was a pattern for marking the arch curve on fabric.

To do so I ironed my paper pattern wax-side down on the right side of the fabric that I had chosen for the arch. This stabilized the fabric while I drew the shape of the arch on the fabric with a white fabric-marking pencil. The line marked the stitch line when I appliquéd the cloth arch to the patchwork background. But before the sewing could begin I had to cut out the center of the arch fabric ¼ inch from the stitch line toward the center of the arch to provide for a turn-under seam allowance.

One final word on the making of Bismillah. Usually I favor simplicity over embellishment of quilts. But I sewed small beads on this quilt to hide the places where my star tips failed to meet. And I added tiny brass trinkets bought at a bead shop to my clamshell zigzag quilting because the arch fabric was too bland, overwhelmed by the quilt center. The trinkets add visual interest to the quilt, although viewers usually think that they are part of the fabric pattern unless they look closely.

California quilter, Donna Hussain, has exhibited in major quilt shows around the country, authored books, and is a regular contributor to Fiber Focus. Click on her name to see all of her past articles.

The photo shows Donna with her husband, Pascha.


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“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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